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Automotive Detailing and Polishing: Selecting the Tools and Choosing the Compound

Charles does a lot of things himself, including remodeling houses and RVs.

Save Money by Doing It Yourself!

Detailing your vehicle can be quite expensive, especially when it comes to polishing and compounding. If you aren't willing to shell out $40-$50 an hour, then your best bet is to do it yourself! This is exactly why I decided to write this article, hoping to share some of my experience with the readers and save everyone a few dollars along the way.

Polisher and Pads

Polisher and Pads

Beginners Should Consider a DA Automotive Polisher

As a beginner, when choosing the proper polisher, you should consider one type: the DA or "Dual Action" Polisher. This type of polisher uses a circular motion combined with a spinning motion to create a rotational double action. This prevents marring and swirl marks. The dual action also helps keep you from taking away too much of the clear coat by keeping the rotation rate slower than a conventional rotary buffer. Also, it orbits randomly to prevent swirls.

DA polishers are really the only way to go when first starting out. Their affordability, ease of use, and forgiving properties are really something to think about when selecting your first polisher.

Choosing a Polisher

When it comes to selecting the best beginner DA polisher, there are three top polish and supplies companies: Meguiar's, Griot's Garage, and The Chemical Guys. These companies offer the polisher, polishes, wax, compounds, backing plates and pads all in one location. These products are matched to each other and help you achieve professional results as a new enthusiast.

Here are the top four beginner polishers. These entry-level polishers provide the best bang for your buck in my opinion. Safe, reliable machines that will provide professional results without breaking your wallet.

  1. The Chemical Guys: TorqX DA Polisher
  2. Griot's Garage: Item #: 10813 6" Random Orbital Polisher
  3. Mequiar's: MT300 Professional DA Polisher
  4. Porter Cable: Detail King #7424XP

1. Chemical Guys: TorqX DA Polisher

I personally own the TorqX from the Chemical Guys. It is similar to the other machines and does a great job on all vehicle finishes. I purchased it only because it came with everything I needed to get started quickly. That's just me, I enjoy the fact that the Torqx was sold that way.

2. Meguiar's MT300 Dual Action Variable Speed Polisher

A step up from The Chemical Guys TorqX polisher, but a little more expensive and without the benefit of extra pads and compounds contained in the TorqX kit. Nevertheless Meguiar’s MT300 Dual Action Variable Speed Polisher is an excellent choice. Its lightweight, ergonomic form incorporates a multi-bearing design and a Digital Torque Management speed controller. With this professional-grade detailing machine, you’re sure to have the power you need each and every time whether you are working with a compound, polish or wax. Safely remove light to moderate swirls and scratches and get a flawless, swirl-free finish no matter your skill level.

3. Griot's Garage 10813STDCRD 6" Dual Action Random Orbital Polisher

Another solid entry from the people at Griot's Garage. A user-friendly DA polisher, ready to go out of the box, at a relatively low price point. It now features molded hand and finger grips along with a domed, rubberized palm grip. The speed control dial and power switch were also moved to more convenient locations. A powerful 7-amp, 850-watt motor ensures the pad rotates under almost any amount of pressure.

While most dual action polishers will stop rotating when more than a little bit of pressure is applied to the head of the polisher, the Griot's Garage 6 Inch Random Orbital Polisher just keeps on going. This enables you to achieve smooth, swirl-free paint in less time.

Even though Griot's Garage's 6-Inch Random Orbital Polisher is a powerful tool that's capable of removing swirls, water spots, light scratches, and oxidation, it is still very paint-friendly, even in the hands of a novice. The random orbit motion of the pad prevents heat from building up in one spot.

Griot's Garage 6 Inch Random Orbital Polisher includes a 6-inch hook and loop backing plate. This backing plate is designed to accommodate 6.5-inch pads from Griot's Garage, Lake Country, Cobra, and Meguiars.

4. Porter-Cable Variable Speed Polisher, 6-Inch (7424XP)

From the makers of one of the best cordless drills comes a complete DA detailing machine. The Detail King is quiet and powerful and will last many years. Coming in at only $119.00 makes the Porter Cable the least expensive in this lineup. Features a 4.5 amp motor for high overload protection and random orbit. It comes with a 6-inch polishing pad. Nicely compact at just 5-1/2 pounds, the Detail King offers swirl-free sanding/polishing action with an electronic variable-speed dial that operates at 2,500-6,800 orbits per minute (OPM). The Detail King accepts 5/16"-24 spindle thread accessories, and it offers a full ball and roller bearing construction for durability under industrial workloads. It features a proprietary counter balance for use with a 6-inch sanding/polishing pad, and it features a two-position (left or right) removable side handle for greater comfort and control.

Pro Tip

These polishers use a hook-and-loop or Velcro backing plate. It attaches to the polisher with a male 5/16" x 24 screw that is attached to the pad. All of these DA polishers have a female opening that accepts 5/16" x 24 threads. This is important because you may have to replace the backing plate or buy larger or smaller ones when performing other detailing jobs such as small areas or headlight lenses.

Different Types and Sizes of Backing Plates

Different Types and Sizes of Backing Plates

Choosing the Backing Plates

When choosing a backing plate for your machine, keep in mind that all of these machines come with a basic backing plate.

Most of these will be 5.5" and use a 6" polishing pad. I know, it sounds a little crazy, how can a 6" polishing pad fit onto a 5.5" backing plate? A polishing pad is tapered. It has a 5.5" base and tapers out to 6" at its surface contact point. Some are cheaply made like the one from Harbor Freight.

When starting out, check the fit of the hook-and-loop and make sure that the velcro connection feels solid. The male screw on the back of the plate should be attached solidly to the plate. There should be no wiggle at this connection point. Another thing to consider is the size of the backing plate. When working on large flat surfaces, a 5- or 6-inch plate/pad setup is ideal. This allows you to cover a lot of ground quickly. However, when trying to reach into those tight spaces, a smaller plate/pad setup is required. I recommend purchasing a 3" backing plate. These are normally found at the machine manufacturer's website or at retail stores where detail products are sold.

Keep in mind that DA polishers have a 5/16"-24 thread opening, so be sure to match these up when purchasing a new backing plate.

Foam DA Polishing/Compounding/Waxing Pads

Foam DA Polishing/Compounding/Waxing Pads

Choosing a Buffing Pad

There are three types of pads. There are foam, wool, and microfiber buffing pads. Each of these pads can be used on your DA Polisher as long as the pad is the same diameter as or slightly larger than the diameter of the backing plate on your chosen polisher.

For this article, we will concentrate on foam pads only. I want to keep it simple, and foam pads will give you the results you are looking for.

Foam pads typically fall into three main categories: compound, polish, and finish. Some manufacturers have more categories between these and that just means they allow a smaller step down between levels of cut. Generally, the more aggressive a pad is marked as, the stiffer the foam used in the construction of the pad.

Foam pads are color-coded and are mostly an industry standard. I have included a color chart below from Lake Country. This is pretty comprehensive and it includes all of the basic color pad choices that a beginner would choose from.

Foam Pad Application Chart

Lake Country Foam Pad Color Chart

Lake Country Foam Pad Color Chart

Choosing a Compound and Polish

Lastly, let's talk about compounds and polishes.

For a beginner or when just starting out, I recommend an all-purpose one-step compound and polish. You can always take an extra step and use a polish after the initial compounding to touch up any imperfections you may have missed. This second step only helps to provide a higher shine and gloss before applying a sealant and won't hurt the work you already did with the all-in-one compound.

The big brands each offer an all in one or complete compound that makes detailing easy and will give you excellent results. I will list my favorites below with a brief description of each compound. It is up to you to decide which one you prefer; they are all very similar in performance and price.

  1. Griot's Garage Complete Compound: Formulated to wipe off quickly and easily with a clean microfiber cloth and buff to a glossy shine. It can be applied by hand or with a DA Polisher and is safe for all automotive paint finishes, including clear coats. Complete Compound's exclusive cutting-edge abrasives cheat physics by starting out with superior defect removal capabilities, and then, as it's worked into the surface, leaving an ultra-fine finish that's ready for a wax or sealant.
  2. Meguiar's Ultimate Compound: The ultimate product for removing oxidation, scratches, water spots, and blemishes without scratching. Cuts as fast as harsh abrasives, restoring surface clarity without scratching or swirling. Clear-coat-safe formula dramatically reduces the time and effort to restore abused or neglected paint finishes. The exclusive micro-abrasive technology leaves a smooth finish and adds gloss in one easy step. Safe and effective on clear coat and single stage paint, and can be applied by Hand or DA Polisher.
  3. Mothers California Gold Pure Polish: Great for the beginner, this is the foundation of the Ultimate Wax System, preparing your paint for Micro-Polishing Glaze and Pure Brazilian Carnauba Wax. Pure Polish removes oxidized paint, old wax buildup, and other contaminants, cleaning and shining your paint. This mild polish smoothes the edges of larger imperfections and removes small scratches. Your paint’s appearance is dependent on a good polishing. Mothers Pure Polish should be used at least once or twice a year.

I Hope You Find the Advice You Need

Finally, a comprehensive guide for the beginner. Selecting the right tools and polishes can turn an average job into a professional-looking job every time. Bookmark this article and refer back when considering your compounding and polishing needs.